Wow! in the Santa Barbara Channel
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
Eye level with a Black-vented Shearwater
The past few days have been outstanding. We have had great weather, calm seas, and a bounty of wildlife streaming into the Santa Barbara Channel. I have been fortunate enough to be scheduled to work on a few whale watches and I took full advantage of the current events.
Gray Whales have been returning from Mexico on their long migration back up north to the Bering and Chuckchi Seas. We have seen some mating activity and some exciting displays of physical fitness from them.
Interestingly Humpback Whales have also been migrating northward and have only just arrived in our area in the past few days. Humpbacks are always a thrill to watch and often display some of the most awesome behavior.
This individual was waving its tail around in the air and bringing it forcefully down to the surface with a sonic impact that was not only heard but felt. Sometimes one gets the idea that the whale may be mad when it does this, but today it seemed to be playing due to the other more graceful movements it made.
Obviously whales steal the show, and deservedly so (especially on a whale watch), but a birder with a keen eye can make great use of the mutual feeding opportunities encountered on these trips. It all starts with the Common Dolphin that moves the small fish into big groups known as a bait ball. This activity gets the attention of the Humpbacks. This is probably due to all the incessant chatter the dolphin produce and the seemingly silent screams of death and fear from the poor little fish being consumed by the pod. With the dolphin in full frenzy mode, splashing mightily at the surface, the amazing tubenoses of the sea dwelling birds begin to detect the fishy oils percolating up from the sea surface. These fishy oils are beacons activating their olfactory bulbs. Soon massive swarms of birds draw closer attracting yet more birds who's eyesight is keener than their sense of smell.
For general birding purposes this is a gold rush, kid in a candy store type stuff. Thousands of birds to pick through, or to gawk at, however you decide to deal with it, it is always a pleasure to see. I have personally been trying to find a particular rare species of Shearwater in these large flocks for years. I have had luck a couple of times in Santa Barbara county, and up in Monterey County, but never in my home county where I spend the most time. I have scanned and processed literally tens of thousands of birds in my quest to find the needle in the haystack always coming up short. Today was a different day though, and my vigilance payed off! As I stood on the opposite side of the crowd that was taking in the whale off the bow I carefully processed as many birds flying by as I could. This is a taxing effort because you only have one second or so to see the bird and assess three of four key physical traits before it has escaped your view and another bird occupies your concentration. It is easy to doubt your ability to discern anything distinguishing one bird from another. From time to time you will get an obvious genetic aberration in a large enough group.
Here is a Leucistic Black-vented Shearwater. Yes this bird is lacking a lot of pigment.
This is what they normally look like, and you see this fly by over and over again. Thousands of these birds streaming by the boat.
Then you see this!
Perhaps only a hardcore pelagic birder will get excited about the small differences between the two birds, but I was so happy, after so long, and so many birds to sift through over the years here it was my new County bird MANX SHEARWATER! For those who don't know, this bird typically resides in the Atlantic Ocean. Yes you read that right, the other side of the country, a whole different body of water.
Here is a comparison shot. Black-vented Shearwater on the left and the Manx Shearwater on the right.
One last look at this marvelous bird. The main area to key in on is the white around the legs and under the tail, but most eye catching is how clean the underside is and how it contrasts with the dark dorsal side of the bird. The pure white "saddle bags" and the hint of a white spur up behind the eye are all complementary field marks.
Besides the great whale show and heaps of shearwater activity there were also great numbers of birds of daintier proportions. The Scripps's Murrelet numbers have really peaked this week. Today on the morning whale watch we had at least 40 individuals. Scripps's Murrelets are usually hard to find, hard to see, and very hard to identify out of season when you have brief looks at a distance as they are flying away from you. This time of year though they are abundant, accomodating, and pretty much the only expected Murrelet...
Scripps's Murrelets, usually found in pairs
Now I say expected...
Here we have three unexpected Ancient Murrelets
On top of all the other great stuff out on this trip we managed to re-find a trio of Ancient Murrelets I first spotted on the previous days whale watch. I was pretty excited that we found the same group again when there is so much ocean out there and they are so small.
To round things out Rhinoceros Auklets are coming into the channel in larger numbers.
One Common Murre with a group of Rhinos
These larger "puffin" Auklets join their smaller cousins, the Cassin's Auklet, which have been seen near the Channel Islands in great numbers.
Things are getting exciting out there, in the next few weeks I expect Sooty Shearwaters and Pink-footed Shearwaters to start making an appearance on the stage. I'll keep documenting what I see, and I hope to see more birders out there too. The whale watching trips continue and the action is hot right now.